Johannes Tinctor: His Life and Work


The Alberta manuscript, fol. 7r

Who was Johannes Tinctor? It is best, perhaps, to begin by acknowledging who he was not—to wit, a “fanatic” in the modern sense of the term. Andrew Gow has noted that such concepts can mislead us when we consider the careers of medieval demonologists and witch-hunters. So it is with Tinctor: far from being a fabulist with a desire to be noticed or a sociopath looking to harm other people, the author of the Invectives was a respected intellectual who had written widely about more benign subjects. We have no reason to think that he was motivated by anything other than a desire to enlighten his readers about a threat he regarded as truly dire and stakes he believed would impact world history.

Beyond that insight, however, our understanding of the life and thought of this curious man is limited by the narrow range of available sources—which include his scholarly works and a few letters and historical references. One of the best English-language summaries of this material, and of Tinctor’s career, was provided by the Dutch scholar Jan Veenstra in a 2003 article. “Tinctor,” Veenstra writes,

was born in Tournai sometime around 1405. He made a brilliant career at the university of Cologne. . . .  Tinctor matriculated in 1423, became magister artium [master of arts] in 1426, and doctor of theology in 1440; he was dean of the faculty of arts in 1433, dean of the faculty of theology in 1442, rector of the university in 1440, 1455 and 1456. . . . He was a fairly prolific writer, producing several commentaries on works by Aristotle, a commentary on Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, a commentary on the Sentences by Peter Lombard, a number of theological treatises (on the Eucharist, on miracles, and the like) and a number of sermons and official speeches and addresses. In 1455, Tinctor was appointed canon of St. Mary’s in Tournai, his hometown, where he also retired before 1460. He died in 1469. (436)

Over the span of this 46-year career, Tinctor produced a scholarly corpus that was, if not towering, then certainly respectable in the eyes of his contemporaries. He was, as Veenstra notes, a Thomist—that is, an adherent of the great philosophical synthesizer Thomas Aquinas, whose efforts to reconcile logic and reason with scriptural precepts underwrote the scholastic philosophical movement that had been dominant among Catholic intellectuals since the thirteenth century.


Candle wax stains appearing on fol. 72v

But Tinctor was no mere traditionalist. As Veenstra points out, he blended his Thomism with a good dose of “proto-humanism”—that is, with an eye to the movement, emanating out of Italy, that sought to rethink the cosmos in terms of Greek and Roman literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions. In this respect, he “was an important transitional figure. . ., someone who [could] introduce old ideas into new contexts” (438).

Not that concepts of witchcraft and demonology current during Tinctor’s time ought to be thought of as “old ideas.” While we tend to think of the Renaissance as a period in which new and sophisticated discourses emerged, it also witnessed an increase in discussions about and fear of the supernatural. Indeed, as Veenstra notes, it was probably not so much Tinctor’s traditional philosophical ideas as a new moral panic—a set of pressing concerns over new forms of heresy and witchcraft that were not recognizably medieval at all—that gave him the greatest incentive to write the Invectives.

Steeped in these ideas, Tinctor took on a role that was unusual for an intellectual of his stature: he became personally active in the witch-craze. “During his final years in Tournai,” as Veenstra tells us, “Tinctor apparently became involved in the persecution of the Vaudois,” or accused witches (436). He “played a part in the arrest of three or four people on the charge of vauderie” (436) and turned his pen to the challenge of avenging their injuries against Christendom (436). He wrote at least one public sermon scolding a man for devil-worship; and, most significantly, he wrote the Invectives in Latin and translated it into Middle French.

For some insights into Tinctor’s purpose and his passion, we must turn to an overview of the traumatic events at Arras—events that resonated far beyond Tournai, troubling clerics and secular lords with the dire implications of trying people as witches.  

Next: Suggested/Cited Readings